Freed academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert says Iran tried to recruit her as a spy

The Australian adds that Tehran wanted to use her academic status to spy on Middle East nations

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Australian-British academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert has revealed that Iranian officials attempted to recruit her as a spy during her more than 800 days in prison in Iran.

In her first interview since being freed and returning to Australia in November, Dr Moore-Gilbert told Sky News that her time in prison gave her prolonged anxiety and "panic attacks".

A Middle Eastern Studies expert at Melbourne University, Ms Moore-Gilbert, 33, was arrested in 2018 at Tehran airport and accused of spying. The trial was conducted in secrecy and she was sentenced to ten years in prison. The academic has always maintained her innocence.

On Tuesday she said that representatives of Iran's Revolutionary Guard attempted to enlist her for their own purposes.

“I knew that the reason that they didn’t engage in any meaningful negotiations with the Australians … was because they wanted to recruit me, they wanted me to work for them as a spy,” she said.

Kylie Moore-Gilbert at Hamad International Airport, Qatar, before flying to Australia after her release after more than two years in an Iranian jail. Twitter/ @FreeKylieMG
Kylie Moore-Gilbert at Hamad International Airport, Qatar, before flying to Australia after her release after more than two years in an Iranian jail. Twitter/ @FreeKylieMG

“[They said] that if I co-operated with them and agreed to become a spy for them, they would free me.”

She said the Revolutionary Guard was not interested in spying on Australia, where she lives and works, but in using her "academic status as a cover story and travelling to other Middle Eastern countries and perhaps European countries, perhaps America, and collecting information for them there".

Ms Moore-Gilbert, 33, has written extensively on the Middle East and published works on the Arab uprisings in 2011.

Her articles include a 2015 review of a book on Middle East politics by the Israeli academic Yoel Guzansky.

She completed her master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies at Cambridge in 2013, and her doctorate at the University of Melbourne. She has since worked at Monash University and Melbourne.

Ms Moore-Gilbert said Iranian officials saw her as a potential asset.

Watch as freed Iran prisoner lands in Australia

Watch as freed Iran prisoner lands in Australia

“I think the Revolutionary Guards had told the prison, ‘If anything happens to this foreign woman, who is of high value to us, then there will be hell to pay,’” she said.

Despite this apparent view, Ms Moore-Gilbert endured harsh treatment and poor conditions in Iran's notorious Evin prison and later Qarchak prison.

Her prison term began with one month of solitary confinement in a small, cold cell where she was subjected to constant light and noise.

She said the conditions drove her "completely insane".

“I’d lost it, I’d lost the plot. I was completely crazy. Just entertaining your brain for such a long period of time … I was never physically tortured with the things you think about, like pulling fingernails or being electrocuted – that never happened to me – but I was beaten up once and forcibly injected with a syringe of tranquilliser against my will and that was in early 2020,” she said.

Despite suffering anxiety and panic attacks, the academic said she maintained her resolve as best she could by telling herself each day: “I am free. No matter what you do to me, I am still free.”

The Melbourne University lecturer became emotional when talking about returning to Australia and seeing her mother again for the first time in well over two years.

“I opened the door of the hotel room and she was there, and that was lovely. She just gave me the biggest hug. Of course, she said she loves me and I said I love her and we just hugged and had some low-key time together, mother-daughter time. It was nice.”

While Iranian media reported that three of Iran's citizens were released in exchange for Ms Moore-Gilbert two years and three months into her 10-year sentence, and Thai officials said they returned three Iranians involved in a failed 2012 bomb plot, the Australian Government has refused to confirm if a prisoner swap was conducted.